Calling all 'Program-Wonks': Improve Government Program Delivery by Putting the Citizen First

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Ask basically any citizen on the street what they think government does for them, and it is unlikely that they will respond with direct reference to a particular public policy. Instead, they will likely refer to a specific set of government interventions in the form of services or initiatives. In other words, they will refer to a program.

While Canadians are principally concerned with government program delivery, governments seem more interested in speaking about policy. Yet, public policy proposals without program implementation remain in the realm of ideas. So why are policy-wonks getting all the attention? Perhaps it’s time we start contemplating how to encourage and enable “program-wonks”?

It’s not simply about the Program Manager, it’s about the Citizen

Governments are being re-shaped through the lens of service delivery. In a world where knowledge is ubiquitous, where governments no longer hold all the pieces, we have to ask what roles contemporary governments, citizens, and non-governmental organizations play. Open data arrangements and digital technologies are beginning to create platforms from which citizens can share in decision-making, dialogue, information sharing, and even co-development of policies and programs. In other words, the public has the opportunity – and expectation – to share in how governments create value and address complex societal issues.

Citizens need to feel that service provision has been organized with their needs in mind, not based on the needs and processes of the government. While this begins with quick, convenient access to services, it must go further toward realistically anticipating citizen needs and providing solutions that integrate programs and jurisdictions. Without exception, the needs of the citizen must be visible in the outcomes that governments are trying to achieve.

It is important to acknowledge that governments have made progress in moving toward citizen-centred program delivery. Moving services online has been one strategy that has enabled citizen-centred delivery. However, the full logic of citizen-centred program delivery inevitably leads to opening the entire policy and program development process to citizens. In recent years, governments in countries as diverse as Brazil, the United States, and Kazakhstan, have opened their processes to the co-design and co-development of policies and programs. Canada’s own national commitment under the Open Government Partnership speaks to moving beyond public consultations and enabling opportunities for civic input to government decision-making.

Investing in Public Service Capacity and Learning are Necessary Steps for Becoming More Citizen-Centred

Across jurisdictions, Canada’s public service has continually ranked among the best in the world. In a context of changing citizen expectations, however, facilitating an increasing and meaningful role for citizens in government policy and program development, design, and delivery requires more than political willingness: it requires a willingness to take risks. It also requires active support from the senior ranks of the public service and the development of citizen-centred skills and competencies. Senior leaders across Canada’s public services – including the federal Clerk of the Privy Council’s “enterprise-wide commitment to learning” – increasingly understand and support the need to invest in professional development that supports the changing nature of the policy and program development process. Intentions are all well and good, but implementation takes a specific set of skills.

Invest in a Citizen-Centred Skillset

The reminders from the senior levels of the public service about the future of policy and program design should be heeded throughout the ranks. A future-oriented, citizen-centred skillset must include (although it is not limited to): leadership, citizen engagement and public deliberation, human resources management, and communications. Developing these skills should start with a meaningful conversation about individual roles and responsibilities and their relationship to the delivery of citizen-centred results and outcomes. This conversation could form the basis for a learning plan, or toolkit, that is adapted to mid- and long-term professional development goals, so that current and future ‘program-wonks’ can develop the skills and competencies they, and by extension, the citizenry, require.

About the authors

Michael O’Neill

Michael O’Neill

Senior Director

Michael A. O’Neill brings a blend of professional experience in the public sector and scholarly experience in post-secondary education to his position of Senior Learning Advisor at the Institute on Governance. In September 2016 Michael returned to Canada following an 18-month mandate with the OECD where he managed and made substantive contributions to public governance and capacity building projects in the Eurasia, European, and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regions.  This appointment followed a succession of senior policy positions with the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Justice Canada, Health Canada, and Foreign Affairs and International Trade over a 22-year career with Canada’s government.

In these roles Michael provided expert advice to ministers, senior officials, and national and international government representatives on a variety of public policy and public governance issues and developed project-related international and national networks of experts and officials.  Michael’s areas of practice are public sector governance, citizen engagement and democratization, and public sector accountability and transparency.

Michael previously joined the IOG between 2010 and 2012 through Interchange Canada to manage projects on public sector governance, NGO governance, performance measurement and evaluation.

Since 1997 Michael has taught and researched in the fields of Canadian and international politics and public administration at the University of Ottawa and the École nationale d’administration publique.  He is the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles and policy papers on public sector governance, social policy and professional training pedagogy.  Michael has also contributed his expertise to the design and delivery of professional training programmes and capacity building sessions for audiences of national and international public officials.

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Cory Campbell

Cory Campbell

Program Manager, Executive Learning

Cory joined the Institute on Governance in May 2016 and works primarily on the IOG’s suite of executive leadership programs at the Learning Lab. His research interests include digital governance, diversity and inclusion, change management, international relations, and exploring the role of civil society.

Prior to joining the IOG, he worked on Parliament Hill for a Member of Parliament and Party Leader. He also held a Junior Research Fellowship at an international think tank where he studied the governance issues with digital intellectual property rights.

Cory has worked on various projects and proposals at the IOG. Topics of research have included the future role of civil society, Northern governance, organizational culture change and change management, and public sector leadership and governance.

Cory holds a Master of Arts degree in Global Governance from the Balsillie School of International Affairs at the University of Waterloo and a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Relations from the University of British Columbia.

Cory is currently a member of the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) and the Canadian Study of Parliament Group (CSPG).




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Steven Tomlins

Steven Tomlins

Senior Researcher

Steven Tomlins is a Senior Researcher at the Institute on Governance. In 2016, he obtained his Doctorate degree in Religious Studies from the University of Ottawa, and he is co-editor of two international academic volumes (Springer 2015; Brill International, 2017), pertaining to religion, irreligion, identity, and expression.

Steven’s experience at the IOG includes project coordination, primary research, secondary research, communications, and report writing. Much of his work at the IOG involves research, writing, and logistical support for public sector projects. These projects include mandate reviews, governance reviews, strategic planning processes, policy research, distributed governance research, models of multilevel/inter-jurisdictional governance, and nation-to-nation (Indigenous/Federal government) relations. His recent projects include comparative case studies on international infrastructure and building code regulatory processes and two projects for the New Fiscal Relationship Working Group shared by the Assembly of First Nations and the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.


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